Dean Wade caught a pass at the free-throw line, took one dribble on his way to the rim and then soared into the air for a two-handed dunk.
You had to be at Hilton Coliseum early Saturday morning to see that particular play, as it happened in warm-ups about an hour before opening tip of Kansas State’s 58-57 victory over Iowa State. But it had a big impact on what transpired once the game began.
It showed Wade was back.
The senior K-State forward had been out four weeks and missed six games because of a torn tendon in his right foot, an injury that threatened to derail his final year of college basketball after he was chosen Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year. The Wildcats looked lost at times without him, particularly on offense. They needed him back in the lineup against a demanding conference schedule.
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He returned Saturday and made an instant impact, despite looking rusty and finishing with two points and nine rebounds. That much was obvious when he scored his lone basket on a driving layup with 2 minutes, 10 seconds remaining.
“It felt great,” Wade said. “There were no second thoughts when I started driving. I kind of felt like I was never hurt. The first couple times I tried to jump and my legs were a little shaky. My conditioning (stunk), but that one felt good. I was aggressive and I had no doubt in my mind I was going to make it. No thoughts of my foot. I’m hoping that shot right there helps shake some of the rust off.”
Wade should be back to his old self soon. Whenever that happens, he will form a one-two-three scoring punch with Barry Brown and Kamau Stokes that could allow the Wildcats to jump back into the top 25 and chase their lofty preseason expectations.
But the fascinating thing about this game was that Wade showed he can help K-State without stepping up as its leading scorer.
Iowa State players showed respect every time Wade touched the ball, which created more space than K-State has seen in recent games and gave other players room to create.
He was also solid on defense and strong on the glass. K-State coach Bruce Weber intended to play Wade no more than 20 minutes, giving him time to ease back into things before pushing him for major production.
“It’s not like riding a bike,” Weber said.
But when the game began, he inserted Wade into the starting lineup. And when the game ended, with Wade already at his minutes limit, he chose to keep him on the floor.
Why? He was too valuable to put on the bench, even at less than full strength.
“We went back with him to find a way to win,” Weber said, “and he got a big basket down the stretch.”
Wade was considered a game-time decision when the day began, and Weber ultimately let Wade decide whether he was fit to play. It wasn’t any choice. Wade badly wanted to join his teammates on the floor, but he also recently returned to practice.
After going down against Georgia State on Dec. 15, he spent the next three weeks in the weight room strengthening his upper body and in the film room expanding his knowledge. He didn’t start shooting until earlier this week.
That showed early on.
“I’m not going to lie, that first few minutes I was in, I was thinking I don’t know if I’m going to make it through this. I am going to die out here,” Wade said. “It was rough, but my second wind hit and I was fine the rest of the game.”
Wade may have been ineffective early, and Wade will no doubt harp in some of his choices to pass up open shots and defer to his teammates, but the Wildcats excelled with him on the floor. K-State made 42.3 percent of its shots and six three-pointers.
The Wildcats led 35-26 at halftime and pulled ahead by 11 early in the second half. They were playing some of their best basketball of the season, and it was no coincidence that Wade was back in the lineup.
Given his history with foot injuries (he also missed the majority of last year’s NCAA Tournament because of a stress fracture in his left foot), Wade could have let this setback get the best of him. But that didn’t happen.
He returned Saturday, and K-State looked significantly better with him in the lineup.
“Injuries are part of the game and I understand it,” Wade said. “I gained some weight, gained some strength. I was in the film room watching film to make sure I understand the ins and outs of basketball that you don’t always see. I tried to make this whole thing into a positive. It does (stink) that I got hurt, but I will be back better than ever.”